The politics behind yet another map of England

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The Independent Online
DOUGLAS Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, has come to 'a firm conclusion' about the future of Oxfordshire. 'The right answer is to leave things as they are,' he has written. 'I certainly detect no popular demand for change.'

Mr Hurd was writing to the Local Government Commission in his capacity as MP for West Oxfordshire. The Commission has proposed (or, more precisely, has put forward as its 'preferred option') that we should do away with Oxfordshire and with many other historic counties such as Cambridgeshire, Lancashire, Somerset, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and the Royal County of Berkshire. The less venerable counties of Avon and Cleveland, created barely 20 years ago, should also go, it suggests. But the old and much-lamented counties of Huntingdonshire and Rutland, to say nothing of the Ridings of Yorkshire, which were abolished in the 1970s, should return.

The Commission has now made recommendations for change in more than 20 counties - the latest set was published last week. It has conducted 50,000 interviews and processed 150,000 letters and questionnaires at an annual cost of pounds 8.3m. The results will merely add to the confusion of the 750 people of the village of Chastleton in Mr Hurd's constituency. Their main street is in Warwickshire at one end, Oxfordshire at the other. If the latter disappears, they wonder if anybody will come out to clear the street when it snows.

Mr Hurd is not the only leading Tory to think that this sounds like madness. When he was Secretary of State for the Environment, Chris Patten said that further change in local government boundaries was needed 'like a hole in the head'. The Tory chairman of the environment select committee, Robert Jones, has described the commission's activities thus: 'Counties and districts fight each other (expensively) to the death and meglamaniac commissioners descend on areas with pre-fixed ideas and draw lines on maps oblivious to local opinion, history or the concept of the community.' Many people, he added, hope 'that the next tumbril rolling down Whitehall will have Sir John Banham (the commission's chairman) inside it'.

So why is local government threatened with being turned upside down? To find the answer, we have to go back to 1990 when Michael Heseltine returned from the political wilderness to take over the Department of the Environment. His job was to abolish the poll tax, but at the same time he had to remain faithful to one of the ideas that led to it: that local taxpayers should have a clear idea of who was spending their money and how.

Two tiers of local government - county councils and the smaller district councils under them - made this impossible, it was argued. Nobody understood the division of responsibilities between the two. Why, for example, should housing be under the districts and social services under the counties? And, as one of those close to the initiative put it: 'A lot of district councils regard a red letter day as when they have to make a planning decision about a petrol station. Our job is not to provide retirement hobbies for councillors.'

The solution - helping to divert attention from the Government's waste of billions of pounds in the poll tax fiasco - was a wholesale review of local government, including structure, financial arrangements, powers and management.

There was a history here. Mr Heseltine was the protege of Peter (now Lord) Walker who had brought about reorganisation in the early 1970s. He had been a junior minister in his department bewtween 1970 and 1972, and secretary of state for environment from 1979-83.

Mr Heseltine's choice to lead the local government commission, Sir John, also had a longstanding interest. As a management consultant with McKinsey he was involved in the establishment of the regional health authorities in the 1970s. It was Sir John who was appointed by Mr Heseltine as the first controller of the Audit Commission in 1983. Later when Mr Heseltine was on the backbenches, Sir John, as CBI director-general, advised him on industrial policy speeches.

Mr Heseltine's vision was of a single tier of local government, based on medium-sized districts. Many of these would be cities and he proposed that they should have powerful mayors on the American model. But Richard Ryder, the chief whip, told him bluntly that his plan could not be carried through the Commons - MPs would not stand for powerful rival personalities being created in their localities.

Then the wholesale commitment to unitary authorities ran aground as ministers feared that entering an election with a commitment to abolish counties would provoke outrage.

After the election, Mr Heseltine moved on and Michael Howard replaced him. Although sympathetic to unitary authorities in principle, he favoured a pragmatic approach. In some areas, he thought, the counties should be preserved because people had an attachment to them as well as to their towns. So there would be two tiers for some areas, one for others. The commission would make recommendations, according to local needs. It would put forward 'preferred options', but also alternatives for consultation.

But Sir John's relations with ministers steadily worsened. In November 1992 he was summoned to the environment department after giving an interview which hinted that unitary counties should be complemented by parish councils with enhanced powers. Attempting to calm the row Mr Howard's deputy, John Redwood, intervened in the conversation, stressing that ministers were grateful for all Sir John's work. 'Not if he acts like this,' responded a furious Mr Howard.

When John Gummer took over at the department last year, he asked John Major to scrap the whole initiative. Instead Mr Major, who was pushing through similar reforms in Scotland and Wales, speeded it up. Then, in January this year, there was further controversy when a government change in the draft guidelines, to the effect that two-tier structures should be the exception, was ruled unlawful.

In the fury that has embroiled the review Sir John has been a popular target. There is, said one ex-minister, a feeling that he is 'out of control'. A minister described him privately as 'the most difficult man I have ever had to work with'. His defenders say he is open- minded and committed to the widest possible consultation, citing his promise to leaflet each house in affected areas. The truth is that Sir John is the type of man very much out of fashion in Whitehall; in the words of one senior Conservative: 'The type of person who is very difficult to direct.'

His biggest failures were predetermined by his remit. The commission started out as part of a complete review of local government intended to create unitary authorities. It has ended up as a body aiming to correct some earlier mistakes and create a few model unitary authorities (perhaps with enhanced parishes) in rural areas.

But at no time will it address the question of the powers that should be given to local government or the extent to which councillors should be able to raise taxation.

That means that English local government will muddle on alongside a burgeoning number of quangos, all under the eagle eye of the Treasury. Few believe this will be the last such review. As one of those close to the commission put it: 'You don't have to be a rocket scientist to conclude that there is a better way to look at local government.'

Additional reporting by Nick Ryan

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